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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

BuffStuff

Thinking about Buffalo a bit....

:: Last week, there was a post by Donald, one of the more than two blowhards who hold forth at 2Blowhards, about Buffalo. Here's a bit of what he wrote, from the perspective of a person who has not, by his admission, set foot in Buffalo in twenty-five years, so this is basically how we look to the rest of the country:

Let me think... Yes, it was just about 50 years ago when...

Splat!!! [City hits wall]

When I was young, Buffalo, New York was Important. Not "major league" in the narrow sense of having a major baseball franchise, mind you, but Important nevertheless. It was the country's most populous state's second largest city -- a major manufacturing and transportation center.

I first visited the Buffalo area in June, 1956. We bounced off the suburbs on our way from Detroit (via Canada) to Syracuse and points east, but I had no doubt that the place was large. And prosperous.

[table of Niagara Frontier population data]

As you can see, population peaked at a point near 1970 and has fallen (on a decade basis) ever since.

Nowadays -- and for the last several decades -- Buffalo has become a branch-plant town.

And that's its fundamental problem.

Companies headquartered in an area will tend to take good care of that area. Contrast the Niagara Frontier with the nearby Rochester area. By the early 70s Buffalo had lost every major corporation aside from some banks (since merged out of existence) whereas Rochester had Kodak, Bausch & Lomb and the (then) booming Xerox (which later decamped). And Rochester prospered throughout the 60s and early 70s, though it hasn't done as well since.

Will the Niagara Frontier turn around? I saw some items in the press a few years back claiming that the worst was over, but the recent population estimate suggests population share decline is still steady.

I need to confess that I haven't been in Buffalo since the early 1980s. So if any readers can provide recent information, that would be greatly appreciated.


Of course, this is all old news to those of us who live here, even those of us who live here and feel some sense of optimism that, yes, things may be on the cusp of an upswing. Or maybe not. In any event, population seems likely to me to be a lagging indicator of a Buffalo resurgence; before we can get people to stop leaving, we have to have the reasons in place for them to not leave in the first place. And that means economic development and jobs.

Donald's statement that Buffalo's biggest problem is its status as a "branch-plant town" is pretty much spot on. It frustrates that so much state effort here to help the area's economy focuses on getting companies from elsewhere to set up shop here. Sometimes this is successful (Geico), other times less so (Bass Pro). This approach has provided some small bang once in a while, but what we're looking for is a boom. We're not looking for big companies to set up an outpost here; what we need is for the next huge company to get its start here. We're looking for New York to make entrepreneurship here easier. The companies that used to rule the roost here are gone; the ones that are opening call centers and whatnot are welcome to do business here, but they're not the key. The key is the companies that, twenty years from now, will still be here after launching themselves here.

What companies will those be? Who knows? But there's something to the old canard about knowing what the problem is before you can solve it. We know what our problem is, and we have good ideas on how to fix it. The big stumbling block now isn't Buffalo, but Albany.

And only after those problems are fixed, and only after we start seeing homegrown businesses having to advertise out-of-area for jobs, will we start to see the population numbers go back up.

As for other Buffalo stuff:

:: Area police finally made an arrest in this area's most notorious string of unsolved rapes and murders. Check out the article on how it happened. Some true-crime writer is going to get a hell of a book out of this one. It's got it all: horrifying crimes; an arrest made after a combination of cutting-edge forensic science and old-fashioned detective work; a suspect who has come under suspicion for these very crimes before; and that same suspect turning out to be a suburban dweller well-liked by his neighbors.

:: Sportswriter Jerry Sullivan says that the Bills should trade Willis McGahee. I'm not sure if they should publicly plunk him on the market, but surely Marv Levy can make it known that he'll entertain offers. The problem with that, obviously, is that there are unlikely to be any big trade offers coming the Bills' way for a guy who is entering his last year on his contract, is already making noises about getting a new and huge deal, and who has a growing reputation for underachieving. But if they can get a second or third round pick for him, I'm fine with that. McGahee hasn't shown much upside, except for those inexplicably great games he always has against the Jets. But the Bills don't play the Jets sixteen times a year, so we can forget that idea.

Sure, you'd rather have a great running back than an average one, but McGahee isn't a great back, and anyway, how did the four starting running backs in this year's upcoming conference championships rank this season? Eleventh (the Bears' Thomas Jones), eighteenth (the Colts' Joseph Addai), twentieth (the Saints' Deuce McAllister), and twenty-eighth (the StuPats' Corey Dillon). Of course, all of those teams have very good offensive lines. Hmmmmm.

:: When I was working at Pizza Hut, one of my fellow shift managers was a huge fan of the New York Yankees. One season the Yankees got off to an 0-3 start, and this guy got really panicked about their fortunes for the rest of the year. Well, that was 1998, and the Yankees that year went on to set records for winning en route to sweeping their way all the way through the playoffs and then the World Series.

My point is this: I'm not worried about a three-game slump by the Sabres.

:: Buffalo's been courting Bass Pro for two years now (or maybe Bass Pro's been courting Buffalo). The original Bass Pro project that was proposed here was a giant superstore to be housed in the shell of Buffalo's old Memorial Auditorium, with the idea that this giant store would be a tourist attraction in itself, with people flocking from miles around to shop in downtown Buffalo. Nobody much thinks that anymore, especially with the Aud apparently out of the discussions as a location and the Bass Pro people reportedly looking at other locations on the waterfront for a smaller store. If that's the case, I'm basically of the opinion that Buffalo shouldn't be "talking" to them at all. It didn't take a cadre of Buffalo development officials to get Cheesecake Factory to open a restaurant at the Galleria Mall. Seems to me that Buffalo should basically say to Bass Pro, "Here are some locations you can look at; here are the zoning requirements for those locations so you don't build something ghastly or out of place with what we're trying to do; here's the price. You do the rest. You have our number if you're interested."

The thing with Bass Pro is that when the mega-store in the Aud was proposed in 2004, there weren't that many Bass Pro's around, so this store at that point might well have been a destination kind of place. But they've opened a lot more stores since then, some of them reasonably close to Buffalo, which means that the Bass Pro here is a lot less likely to be a destination. And I can't help but think that Bass Pro knew this all along.

Large retail stores don't spring into existence quickly. Just looking at the way my own company does business, from the moment the announcement is made that a location has been selected and a store will be built to the moment the store's doors are thrown open to the public, a year or more can elapse. It takes a long time to build a big store, and the more picky the company is about the appearance standards of its stores, the longer they take. I find it hard to believe that even as the Bass Pro people were selling our former Mayor and our former Governor on the idea of this tourist-attraction store, they didn't know that they were proceeding full-steam ahead on all the other stores nearby. My intuition (and it's just that, intuition) about all this is that Bass Pro figured Buffalo for a bunch of chumps. Well, maybe we are and maybe we aren't. But they didn't get their store, did they?

Worst thing is, I loved this idea when I first heard it. I loved the idea of something different on the waterfront, something that would help sell the idea of Buffalo as something other than snow, football, beer, and old steelmills. This region of ours is a place of great outdoor beauty and activity, and you'd never know it to hear anybody outside of Buffalo talk about Buffalo. A big Bass Pro might have been a start to changing that perception a little. But that's about it.

We're the ones with the land. If they want to build here, let them spend the money to do it.

:: What do I think we should do with the old Aud? Personally, I'm thinking, tear it down, zone the land in accordance with urban design principles, and let the buyers and developers fight over it. (Although maybe moving the Museum of Science down there would be cool, if they could really do it up right and make a top-flight science museum, with an OmniMax theater and planetariums and whatnot, maybe with a section devoted to Great Lakes history and biology. Of course, I have no idea where the money comes from for something like that, so demolish-and-zone is probably the best way to go.)

:: One week to go in this year's Buffalo News short-fiction contest, and I have absolutely no idea how to write this story. I'm so out of practice, fiction-wise, that I'm appalled to call myself a writer. What the hell.

And that's all I have to say about Buffalo right now.

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